Linking PAN with Aadhaar – Update from the Supreme Court Hearing (Day – VI)

The arguments in the writ petition challenging the vires of Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act continued for the sixth (and final) day today. The counsel for Mr. Binoy Viswam continued his rejoinder submissions today. A summary of arguments made over the last five days can be found here.

During the course of his initial arguments, Mr. Viswam’s counsel had contended that s. 139AA ought to be struck down as it violated several interim orders of the Supreme Court directing that Aadhaar be voluntary. In its response, the Central Government had argued that there could be no injunction or estoppel against the Parliament’s power to legislate. Today, Mr. Viswam’s counsel clarified that he was not disputing the Parliament’s sovereignty. His contention was that as long as the interim orders stood, s. 139AA could not have been enacted. He further stated that the Parliament could have ‘removed the basis’ of these orders when drafting the legislation, but had chosen not to.

In response, Justice Sikri stated that the instant case was different as there was no statutory scheme at the time of the interim orders, implying that were was no ‘basis’ that could or should have been removed. He asked if there was any authority to support the proposition. The petitioners’ counsel informed the bench that there wasn’t and that the Court would be deciding this issue for the first time.

On further prodding from the bench about the basis of the interim orders, the counsel responded that they were in the nature of mandamus to ensure that the scheme remained voluntary. In the bench’s view, the writ of mandamus was issued to only the Executive, and not the Parliament. However, it was submitted that once the Supreme Court had passed an order, Parliament was not at liberty to override it, keeping its binding nature in mind. He contended that the sanctity of judicial orders must be maintained, and a judgment could only be overridden by ways known to law. As an analogy, he pointed out the Supreme Court’s ruling banning selling of alcohol along highways. He argued that states could only overcome the judgment by de-notifying highways, and not by merely allowing sale of liquor irrespective of the Court’s judgment. This, in his view amounted to removing the basis of the judgment. Coming back to Aadhaar, he contended that the only way to remove the basis would have been to make Aadhaar mandatory under the Aadhaar Act itself.

Terming the Parliament’s action as dichotomous, he argued that when voluntary under the Aadhaar Act, Parliament had no competence to make it mandatory by s. 139AA. Justice Bhushan appeared unconvinced, and stated that both statutes operated in different domains. The petitioner’s counsel conceded, but argued that this still created a clash that must be rectified. Notably, he argued that s. 139AA did not begin with a non-obstante clause (that is, a clause to the effect that an action could be mandated notwithstanding any other law or judgment). The same Parliament could not confer a right to obtain Aadhaar and simultaneously impose it as a duty. That, he argued, would lead to absurd results.

On the Central Government’s argument that proportionality should not be read into Article 14, the counsel clarified that his argument on proportionality was limited to the statute not having a rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved – that is, to eradicate black money.

He went on to explain the statistics put forth by the government with respect to increased PAN cards. He pointed out that post 1998, PAN was made an essential requirement to obtain mobile phone connections and debit/credit cards, leading to a sharp increase in the number of PANs. This, he argued, did not make the increased numbers ‘sinister’. He also pointed out that the statistics showed that the extent of duplication was minimal. Therefore, the Government had little basis to mandate Aadhaar to de-duplicate PANs when there were no figures or studies conducted to examine the extent of the problem. He reiterated that the consequence of making Aadhaar mandatory were draconian, and consequently disproportionate. This, he argued, violated individuals’ right to practice their trade or profession, enshrined under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, and was not a reasonable restriction under Article 19(6).

He concluded his arguments by quoting Willian Douglas on the need to remain vigilant to protect civil liberties. He prayed for the Court to either strike down s. 139AA or at least strike down the proviso, which attached penal consequences for non-compliance. As an alternate submission, he prayed that the Court make linking Aadhaar mandatory only for those who had enrolled.

With the conclusion of the arguments, the Court reserved its judgment.

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